More than 350 Christmases have passed in Charleston since the city’s founding. And while today’s celebrations look much different than in 1670, some traditions remain. Others came to prominence in the years since.
As Charlestonians settle in for another Christmas Day, we’re revisiting Charleston County Public Library historian Nic Butler’s 2019 Charleston Time Machine podcast that explored the context of holiday traditions practiced by early Charlestonians.
Here are four things you may not know about 18th- and 19th-century Christmases in Charleston, summarized from Butler’s episode and its corresponding written version:
1. Not much is known about enslaved residents’ holiday traditions.
Enslaved people made up the majority of the Charleston-area population, but because written histories focus on white residents, not many records document how enslaved people spent their time over Christmas, when work often stopped in cities and in rural areas.
“It was not unusual for white masters to allow their enslaved servants a bit of liberty to prepare a festive meal, and even to visit loved ones elsewhere within the Lowcountry,” Butler said.
2. No Santa in Charleston until at least the late-19th century.
Because early Charleston Christians followed Protestant denominations, mentions of Saint Nicholas were scarce until at least 1790, when Catholicism became legal. Even after that, Butler wrote, “Santa Claus was entirely unknown here until the late 19th century.”
3. Gift-giving not mainstream in early Charleston
According to Butler’s research, the exchange of gifts around Christmas was not a documented occasion in first-century South Carolina. But references have been found to collecting items for a so-called “Christmas Box,” a box given to tradespeople or enslaved servants following Christmas day.
Advertisements in the first half of the 19th century also point to early commercialization and gifts on Christmas, Butler wrote.
“As mass-production techniques began to transform our consumer culture in the mid-nineteenth century, the nature of our Christmas gifts evolved, but things like clothing, puzzles, dolls, jewelry and books remained staples of the trade into the twentieth century.”
4. Popularity of Christmas trees came only after 1850
A stop in 1850 by nationally prominent Swedish soprano Jenny Lind likely marks one local event that kickstarted Christmas trees’ popularity, Butler wrote. After Lind’s well-publicized tour of the Northeast, she sailed into Charleston from Baltimore for a few days of rest over Christmas before her local performances.
Reports from the time, Butler found, describe fans outside the Charleston Hotel on Meeting Street viewing “a forest tree” inside Lind’s room, “decorated with variegated lamps, which attracted much attention.”
Another magazine report that included the likeness of Queen Victoria gathered around a tabletop Christmas tree contributed to the hoopla, Butler wrote.
“The immense popularity of both Jenny Lind and Queen Victoria, combined with the affection both ladies demonstrated for evergreen decorations, propelled the Christmas tree into the vanguard of holiday necessities in the Charleston area and beyond.”
If that’s not enough family conversation for your Christmas weekend, check out Butler’s full podcast, which includes a few other anecdotes.
Subscribe to The Charleston Time Machine at ccpl.org.